Workers Vanguard No. 1080
11 December 2015
Hell Is Not Hell Enough
No to Public Housing Smoking Ban!
On November 12, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro revealed an outrageous proposal to nationally ban all smoking in public housing over the next several years, invoking the agency’s seemingly divine “responsibility to protect public housing residents from the harmful effects of secondhand smoke” (Washington Post, 12 November). In fact, major studies that tried to find a health risk from secondhand smoke show no statistically meaningful correlation. But the health, happiness and well-being of the denizens of public housing have nothing to do with the proposed ban. As Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who leads the New York City Council’s public housing committee, put it, “If the federal government is generally concerned about improving public health, how about fixing roofs or removing mold?” Or how about providing real medical coverage for everyone rather than the sham of “Obamacare,” where deductibles are often so high as to render coverage almost unusable?
There are a little over two million people inhabiting public housing. For the most part they are huddled near the bottom of the sociological barrel of American society—the elderly, disabled and the working poor and their children. They live on incomes well below the poverty level, but are nevertheless obliged to pay 30 percent of their income to rent apartments in buildings that are not infrequently rat-infested and falling apart. Although 32 percent of public housing residents are white, the nearly half who are black are segregated into some of the nation’s meanest ghettos. Blacks and Latinos are four times more likely than white people in similar housing to live in high-poverty neighborhoods (where the poverty rate exceeds 40 percent).
The proposed ban on smoking would take away one of the few pleasures available to those consigned to earthly hell while providing authorities with yet another pretext to evict public housing residents. Since Democratic president Bill Clinton introduced the “one strike, you’re out” rule in 1996, felons have been prohibited from living in public housing while others have been evicted for being suspected of criminal activity without even being charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Tenants can face eviction merely for having visitors, including relatives, who have been convicted of a felony. Today, the Obama administration is seeking to expand a 1996 program that allows selected public housing agencies to set time limits for occupancy and to link residency to children’s academic success. Meanwhile, no new funds have been allocated for public housing since the mid-1990s, while 10,000 units a year are lost to decay. The reality is that public housing is headed for the junk heap.
Housing agency representatives have suggested that residents will have to enforce the proposed smoking prohibition. This, as many have pointed out, is a decidedly unhealthy proposal that would turn residents into potential finks and would only lead to more police raids. It is not difficult to imagine the blowing away of a black tenant by an invading cop who “mistakes” the non-diet cola in his hand for a gun. Look at what happened to Akai Gurley: last November a New York cop in the Brooklyn projects shot and killed him as he was walking in the stairwell with his girlfriend because the elevators were broken.
There is no reason for the cruel indignities visited upon this section of the population other than the very nature of the capitalist order. The growth of the profits and wealth amassed by the owners of the means of production always goes hand-in-hand with increasing misery and poverty for working and poor people. And when these depredations are visited on black people, they are done so with a vengeance. The cornerstone of American capitalism is the race-color caste oppression of black people—an oppression that drives a wedge between black and white workers, splitting the ranks of the proletariat, the only social force with the power to overturn the bosses’ rule through socialist revolution.
The inhabitants of public housing are not without resource. Many have relatives who are in the large and often heavily black public unions that run this country’s major cities (some are even union members themselves). These unions could spearhead a mobilization of labor power to end the jail-like conditions imposed on public housing residents. But the misleaders of America’s unions, rather than mobilizing class struggle to defend their members against layoffs and cuts to wages and benefits, have been complicit in the bosses’ drive to slash budgets and boost profits. We need a new class-struggle leadership committed to a working-class fight back against the capitalists’ all-sided class war against working people, the poor and oppressed.
To provide for even the elemental needs of all will take the revolutionary overturn of capitalist property relations, which requires the building of a party committed to socialist revolution and centered on working-class militants devoted to that purpose. The proletarian government that will arise on the ashes of this decaying capitalist system would quickly develop low-cost, integrated quality housing with the best schools and cultural institutions to provide for the education and well-being of all. Workers rule in the U.S. and internationally—based on a centrally planned, collectivized economy—will provide the building blocks for socialist society, the banner of which will be “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”